Management > CIO

Putting Croydon on the digital recruitment map

David Bicknell Published 26 March 2018

In the first of a two-part interview, Croydon Council chief information officer Matthew Wallbridge explains how the council did things differently in attracting top digital talent to South London

 

Croydon has never been the most architecturally loved of London boroughs. Both David Bowie and William Cobbett have offered well-quoted views on it. Now, however, it has ambitions to change its concrete jungle image, recently announcing a multi-billion pound regeneration plan. Come out of East Croydon station and you can already see swish new glass apartment blocks going up. The investment and regeneration – apparently modelled on Barcelona’s regeneration after the 1992 Olympics – recently attracted a newspaper headline to offset previous descriptions: “Croydon is the new Barcelona.”

Croydon Council’s IT and digital operation is also undergoing a transformation. This week it announced that it has appointed Rainmaker Solutions as its digital partner for the ‘Good to Great’ multi-sourcing programme that will implement new ICT capability across the council over the next three years. 

Procured via the G-Cloud 9 framework, Rainmaker will work as a delivery partner to support the council through the recommissioning of outsourced ICT services and the implementation of new contracts after Croydon exits its outsourcing contract with Capita in 2019.

The Rainmaker contract is the latest example of Croydon Council chief information officer Matthew Wallbridge’s own regeneration mission: to attract the best digital talent to the borough, instead of it heading for places such as Shoreditch and Hoxton.

The cost of tech space in Croydon is perhaps only a quarter of that in say, Old Street or Aldgate districts. What Wallbridge must do is get the best people he can find to journey south of the river. And getting the work-life balance right is a key element of his employment proposition, as is the ease of getting there.

“Part of the work I’m leading on is about what attracts people to Croydon. Or what can Croydon give to people that’s different. I’ve worked here for three years. Typically, you didn’t really come to Croydon. You’d pass through it because you’d be travelling somewhere else. But some of the advantages are the ease of travel. People don’t realise that it’s literally fifteen minutes into London Bridge, or 25 minutes to Victoria.”

A lot of Wallbridge’s staff live in Brighton, or on the South Coast. “You’ve got good travel connections and that helps to attract staff and also companies that want to work here. For me, it’s all about selling the advantages of Croydon, attracting talent and showing what’s good about Croydon.

“I’m a big fan of podcasts and comedy in general and every week I hear a reference to Croydon. And every single comment would be negative, whereas I think Croydon’s got some huge advantages in the tech space and attracting people to come and work for ICT in Croydon should be a really interesting thing.  We’re actively going for those people that want to work in Croydon for different reasons.  Some will live nearby. You’ve got a bit of Surrey, you’ve got all of Brighton, South London, and you’ve got anything on the Overground because it’s easy to get to. We also want to attract a diverse mix of staff, targeting women and ensuring my team is more representative of our residents”

For Wallbridge, however, it’s not just about accessibility, which is one of Croydon’s biggest advantages, but also the work people are doing and particularly getting the work-life balance right.

“I never want to pretend in the ICT world that we’re going to match the Amazons or the Googles or even the mid-sized firms,” he says. But we do offer a proper work-life balance. I meet candidates  now, particular in the senior management area, and I tell them my story that I’ve got an eight month old daughter, I recently got married, and I want to leave at a decent time to spend time with the family and do the school run on Friday.

“It’s hard to be in charge of a big ICT team but one of the attractive qualities for coming to work is an environment where you’ll lead a big project, and make a real difference to people’s lives. You’ll get a good work life balance and you’ve got the accessibility to get to work. People are simple in the end. They want the work life balance, they want to be stretched and they want the career opportunity. The days of having people work in ICT where they stay in an ICT team for five or ten years doesn’t really happen anymore. People are going to spend a good two years, do a couple of really good projects and then go up to the next job on the next scale, whatever it is. So getting them here at a time when they’re doing something interesting is part of what we’re trying to attract to Croydon.”

Croydon’s regeneration has already attracted Westfield, the biggest shopping centre in Europe, to the borough, bringing comparisons with Stratford in East London. “Bringing Westfield into Stratford has driven a completely different economy. Here, you’re doing it into a self contained city on the edge of London. You’re putting in the biggest shopping centre in Europe and you’ve seen all the tower blocks going up. The tower block that’s being built next to East Croydon station will be the second biggest building in the country, just slightly smaller than the Shard. But that’s the scale of ambition as a place and it’s getting people to buy into it now.

“I guess part of it is creating that burgeoning tech industry and selling the advantage of where we are. My role as the CIO of Croydon Council is it’s about bringing good people in to work for Croydon.  And in terms of recruitment, I’m trying to do something different. It was about creating a website that has a different look and feel than a council-led recruitment site which is typically about completing long application forms.” Instead, Wallbridge has encouraged applications through a different medium, video, starting with his own pitch.

“This was all about video job descriptions about putting something about myself out there, about what I expect of the role. I made it very focused on a style that I like, to attract a certain type of person, which was a bit more the dynamic ICT person that wants to do better, that wants to work in a certain way, and who wants to try something new.”

Wallbridge was pleased to see that in response to his video sales pitch, he got video CVs back.

“It’s been a bit mixed, and people are still getting used to it. But people are doing mini pen-portraits just using their iPhone. It was typically filmed on an iPhone, and then edited and all that kind of stuff. People will send that in and then they’ll send in their CV.”

Wallbridge has also shaken up the visit and interview process. “We don’t take them through the normal council recruitment processes. They come into the building and often they’ll meet me or one of my managers. We’ll show them around, show them what it’s like, how we work together, creating a nice working atmosphere where people work together. There’s a bit of a buzz there. Once you get people into the building and you show people how easy it is to get to Croydon, that’s almost 50% of the hurdle about getting the good people in.”

In a sense, Wallbridge is pitching his jobs to candidates rather than them pitching their experience to him.

 “You can never tell from a job description what work you’ll actually be doing. And we look at how we sell what we do to prospective employees rather than them having them sell to us. It’s more about talking about work-life balance, what their values are, what are their career aspirations, as opposed to a technical interview based on questions like, ‘What have you done?’

Wallbridge knows that a local authority is never going to be able to match the salaries of other employers in the London area.

“We’re not going to pay as much and we know that showing them the benefits, where we work, what they’d be working on, offering a real picture of what they’d be leading on, is our way of selling it to them because we know we’re competing with every other tech firm across London and the South East.”

Wallbridge reflects that to get the right talent into Croydon, he had to take radical action, eventually deciding to work with the Resourcing Hub, a specialist recruitment organisation that supplies permanent and contract IT professionals to a range of industries, including aviation and travel, consulting, financial services and the public sector.

“We had to do something differently. I’ve only taken on leading ICT permanently for the last 12 months and my frustration was that we weren’t getting the right level of candidates through. It was really mixed about how we we’d advertise roles. We’d put a job out, we’d go into the trade press and we’d just do a bog standard advert. But we weren’t getting the level of response.

“I asked a few people that I trust who were the good companies, who’s doing stuff in this space and had a conversation with my director of HR and my exec director. And I asked them, ‘Would you let me do something different?’ We were spending a lot on interims and a lot on people on a day rate and I wanted to bring permanent staff into the team. I did a quick paper that looked at the cost differentials of what we were paying for interims, what we’d pay for permanent, why were people put off applying.

“Some of it was our recruitment processes. Some of it was just that nobody knows our story and what we do. We were Digital Council of the Year in 2017, but we’ve not made much use of that. Small things attract people. So I did a bit of fishing around and then essentially put out a procurement spec for what I wanted. We got a really good response. But the Resourcing Hub was very different from all the other recruitment companies that I talked to or that went forward in the process. They did something different which was about sourcing candidates in a very personalised way.”

Wallbridge explains further. “It’s not just a job board. It’s not just about firing stuff out on LinkedIn and Twitter and typical trade press. It was truly doing something different which was about personalised videos. It was about a process. The Resourcing Hub literally come and sit in my team for a number of days a week. They really got what I wanted to achieve and they got my style which made it an easy decision to work with them, because they want to work in a different way. They get to understand what myself and my managers want. They get better value because their candidates will come through and we meet them in person and they’re interviewed and shown the building and shown what work they’ll be doing. So those people that we recruit are more likely to stay. And stay a bit longer and really want to come here.”

For Wallbridge, doing recruitment in a different way has led to better responses. “I don’t want good candidates. I want great candidates because that’s part of my journey of where I want to take ICT to. I’m prepared to spend extra money, to do things a different way, to spend more time myself to get a better quality candidate. If I spend a day getting a candidate in who’s going to be here for two years, then that’s worth my while.”

“The Resourcing Hub do most of the work. I do a lot of the videos and I’ll meet people and say Hello in that first stage of the interview and then I’ll form the interview myself with some of my managers. But the Resourcing Hub do all the sourcing of candidates and look at all the traffic from the website. We spent some time before and after Christmas on the site. But now it’s self managing and now we’re adding candidates and I’ll do new videos and update the content to attract people to Croydon as and when it’s necessary.”

The Resourcing Hub runs Croydon Council’s ICT recruitment website , kicking off a three stage recruitment process.

“So the website is up there, which they run. The second bit is as soon as someone contacts them or they find somebody, they’ll do the first kind of telephone interviews with them, to see if they meet the requirements. And then they’ll ‘face to face them’ on-site in Croydon and talk to them about things like work-life balance, values, what style of people they are. The Resourcing Hub knows what style I want. I want dynamic individuals, people who have that sort of business relationship management/customer facing skills, people that want to work for the right reasons. And they’ll go through a process of asking them the right kind of questions. Then they recommend ones for myself to interview.  And although it’s a three stage process, if we get a candidate, which we did before Christmas, we go through the process really quickly. There’s a bit of agility there.”

Wallbridge is keen to point out that Croydon does also go through the normal council recruitment processes at the end of the line, such as having a formal interview with Wallbridge or one of his team, getting references etc. “But it’s all about attracting the right type of people. It’s just a different approach.”

So far, Wallbridge has had vacancies for several senior roles, which he has asked the Resourcing Hub to fill.

“We initially had five roles out and the Resourcing Hub has filled all of these. The roles were an ICT Programme Manager, Commercial Contracts Manager, ICT Business Partner Manager and Business Partner (Place), and a Senior Project Manager. These are difficult to fill, senior posts. For one of them, I’d been out (to recruit) five times. The Resourcing Hub is now also assisting us with sourcing Business Intelligence specialists to complement the team.”

Wallbridge may not be able to do much about Croydon’s geographical location, or thanks to Messrs Bowie and Cobbett, its previous reputation. But when it comes to ICT recruitment, he certainly seems to be taking the right steps to put Croydon on the map.

(In the second part of this interview, Wallbridge will discuss Croydon’s work in partnership with other councils)

 







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